Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Our annual post of 'New Year's Evil'

 By Steve D. Stones Happy Days star Roz Kelly stars in this early 1980s slasher film directed by Emmett Alston. Like so many horror films of the 1980s, this one is an attempt to cash in on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween franchise.

Kelly is a punk rock mother hosting a New Year’s Eve party at a hip New Wave music club in downtown Los Angeles. Her teenage son comes to see her at the club with flowers, but she completely ignores him. A maniac killer, played by Kip Niven, calls Kelly at the club hotline to inform her that he will commit a murder every hour until 12 midnight as part of his New Year’s resolution. A club worker named Yvonne is the first victim to be killed in a bathtub in a club dressing room.

The second victim is a pretty blonde nurse at the local hospital. The killer predictably poses as a new hospital orderly who lures the nurse into a hospital room with champagne and proceeds to stab her to death after making out with her. Another nurse at the hospital discovers her body in a closet.

The killer continues to call Kelly at the music club in a disguised voice to inform her that he is committing murders. He even plays a taped recording over the phone of him stabbing the nurse at the hospital. Kelly is now forced to take his threats seriously. She asks the local police department for police protection.

By now the viewer has been exposed to lots of really bad punk rock performances, zebra striped T-shirts, and 1980s mullet hairstyles. Where are The Ramones, The Misfits and The Sex Pistols when we need them?

Feeling rejected by his mother, Kelly’s son sees his mother performing on television at the club with a punk band. In a fit of anger, he tears apart the roses he brought for her, and stretches one of her red nylon stalkings over his face as if he is about to become a killer himself. This is a particularly confusing scene because by now we already know who the killer is and what he looks like, so any attempt to suggest that the killer could be Kelly’s son seems unnecessary. The killer now shows up at another dance club in L.A. dressed in an obviously fake moustache and three-piece suit. He tells another pretty blonde girl at the bar that he is a business agent for many Hollywood actors in town. He convinces her to leave the club to attend a business party. She refuses to go alone with him, so she takes one of her club friends with her.

This spoils the plans of the killer to get her alone. The three drive in the killer’s Mercedes to a gas station, where the killer strangles one of the girls with a bag full of marijuana. He hides in a Dumpster to attack the second girl as she comes out of the gas station with a bottle of champagne. The killer stabs her to death. As the killer flees the scene, he is harassed at a stop light by a motorcycle gang. The killer speeds away from the motorcycle gang and hides out at a local drive-in theatre.

The movie screen advertises a film entitled Blood Feast as a feature playing at the theatre, but it is not Herschel Gordon Lewis’ schlock masterpiece from 1963, unfortunately. After stealing another car from a young couple making out at the drive-in, the killer shows up at the New Wave club, manages to club a police officer in the head at a back entrance, and puts his police uniform on, which conveniently fits him perfectly. Under police protection outside her dressing room, Kelly sits in front of a mirror putting on make-up as the killer suddenly appears in her room in a jogging outfit and a Halloween mask.

She sees him in the mirror, but is not frightened. He removes the mask, and reveals himself to be Richard Sullivan, her husband. She is not frightened by his presence because she has no idea he is the killer. As the couple gets into an elevator, it becomes evident to Kelly that her husband is the killer.

He holds a knife up to her and saying:“I’m fed up . . . You’re just like all the other women in my life. Women are manipulative, deceitful, immoral and very, very selfish!”

His reasoning for killing here seems very petty and unnecessary. Wouldn’t his actions make him “manipulative, deceitful, immoral and selfish?” If he was so fed up with his wife, why didn’t he just request a divorce from her? Why go through the troubles of killing several innocent women to get to her? In the post O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson world we live in today, it seems highly unlikely that a man would go on a killing spree killing innocent victims just to prove a point with his wife.

However, I realize this film was made long before the O.J. Simpson ordeal of the1990s, and the Scott Peterson ordeal early in this decade. As the film comes to an end, Richard chains his wife to the bottom of the elevator and is chased by policemen who fire shots at him. He is chased to the top balcony of the building, where he puts the Halloween mask back on and jumps off the building, committing suicide. His son emotionally removes the mask from him.

The film ends with a shot of Kelly being wheeled into an ambulance. The driver of the ambulance is wearing Richard’s Halloween mask, and the paramedic on the passenger side lies dead on the floor of the ambulance. Could the killer now be Kelly’s son?

NEW YEAR’S EVIL follows in the long line-up of so many 1980s slasher/horror films. Like Silent Night, Deadly Night, My Bloody Valentine, Christmas Evil, Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas, April Fool’s Day, Mother’s Day, and so many others, NEW YEAR’S EVIL is an attempt to use a holiday title to cash in on the slasher craze of the 1980s. Watch it below:

Monday, December 21, 2015

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny ... It NEEDS riffs

By Steve D. Stones

I thought I had seen all the terrible Christmas movies to be watched, until I recently saw “Santa and The Ice Cream Bunny.” The folks at RiffTrax, formerly Mystery Science Theatre 3000, provided hilarious commentary about the film on the evening of Thursday December 3. Without their commentary, I may have walked out of the theatre. The movie is so bad that it is not listed in any film encyclopedia I own. No film critic seems to be anxious to write about “Santa and The Ice Cream Bunny.” It is on the Internet Movie Database.

Somehow Santa ends up stranded on the beaches of Florida soaking up the sun in his sleigh. His reindeer have abandoned him. He calls on some local children to help him get his sleigh back in operation. Each child is called by their name, except one little girl Santa calls "Kid." The children bring farm animals one by one to try and attach to Santa's sleigh. None of the farm animals, including a sheep and donkey, wants to be hitched to the sleigh.

The children suggest that Santa take a plane back to the North Pole, but he refuses to leave his sleigh abandoned. He complains about the Florida heat and sheds some of his clothing. Since Santa's sleigh is empty, the viewer is confused as to whether or not Christmas is over, or if Santa is just behind in delivering presents to children for Christmas.

With the failed attempt to get his sleigh in operation, Santa decides to take a rest and tell the children a story. Suddenly, the movie abruptly shifts to the story of Jack and The Beanstalk. This sequence was produced by Barry Mahon, a director who made soft-core sex features and films about fairy tales appealing to children. Other prints of “Santa and The Ice Cream Bunny” insert Mahon's Thumbelina (1970).

Jack purchases some seeds from Honest John — a cow salesman. Jack lives in a land where everyone is dressed like the Partridge Family. What follows is a series of bad musical performances by little Jack and the giant he steals a golden goose and harp from. Jack stands in front of out-of-focus, rear-projected images of the giant as he attempts to steal the poorly sculpted paper mache goose and harp on the table in front of the sleeping giant.

As the story of Jack and The Beanstalk finishes, Santa reappears on the Florida beach with the children. Suddenly, an antique fire truck driven by someone in a bad bunny costume appears to take Santa back to the North Pole.

This ice cream bunny makes the evil bunny in “Donnie Darko” (2001) look like the Trix rabbit or Bugs Bunny. He drives the fire truck like a drunken clown, nearly running over a dog and steering into pot holes. The most freaky part is when the bunny winks at a little girl who runs up to him after the fire truck arrives on the beach.

Before “Santa and The Ice Cream Bunny,” RiffTrax screened three Christmas shorts — “Santa Claus's Story,” “The Tales of Custard The Dragon” and “Santa's Enchanted Village.” The three shorts are also really bad holiday entertainment, but the RiffTrax commentary makes them more enjoyable to watch.

The one good aspect going for “Santa and The Ice Cream Bunny” is the beautiful black, white and red poster art created for the film of Santa in the fire truck with the ice cream bunny. This poster is likely a sought after collector's item for fans of bad movies.

For a much better holiday feature by Mahon, see the animated “Santa and The Three Bears” (1970).

This review was originally published in the Standard-Examiner newspaper. Art by Steve D. Stones.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Our favorite Christmas films -- Doug Gibson and Steve Stones

Hello Plan9Crunch readers, in honor of the holidays, bloggers Steve D. Stones and I, Doug Gibson, offer readers our five favorite Christmastime films. We hope you enjoy reading our picks and perhaps you will sample one or two as Christmas day approaches. So, here we go!

Doug Gibson’s list of favorite Christmas/holiday-themed films
1). “A Christmas Carol,” 1951: “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster”  Simply put, Alastair Sim best represents Scrooge as depicted by Charles Dickens.  His redemption after visits from three spirits is also the best, most joyfully portrayed on film. Old screen veterans Kathleen Harrison and Ernest Thesiger also add spice and cheer to this adaptation.

2). “A Christmas Carol,” 1984: George C. Scott’s portrayal of London’s meanest businessman is superb, and just a tad below Sim’s definitive portrayal. Scott gives Scrooge a faint of air whimsy and humor, even when he’s coveting pennies within sight of beggars. To be fair to Scott, it translates well to the screen. Edward Woodward, as an imposing, scolding Ghost of Christmas Present, is the best Christmas ghost captured on the screen.

3). “Going My Way,” 1944: Bing Crosby, as Father Chuck O’Malley is a joy for Christmas, mixing wonderful songs with a story about a talented young priest called to a struggling to secretly help a grizzled old veteran priest, Father Fitzgibbon, (wonderfully played by Barry Fitzgerald) back on its financial feet. Perhaps no other film captures life in the heart of NYC so well. The finally scene, in which Father Fitzgibbon is reunited with his mother after a half-century, will cause the driest cynic to tear up.

4). “Miracle on 34th Street,” 1947: This witty tale of Santa Claus on trialbasically made Edmund Gwenn iconic as who Santa Claus is. The most tear-inducing scene is Gwenn’s Santa speaking Dutch with a WW2 orphan girl at Macy’s. There are two main threads in this marvelous slice-of-NYC life film. The first involves a witty court fight to legitimize Gwenn’s Santa. The second is Gwenn’s quiet but effective campaign to teach a cynical mom and her impressionable daughter the true spirit of Christmas.

5) “The Shop Around the Corner,” 1940: I love this Christmas film, where two shop clerks, who initially actually have a history of disliking each other, share love notes as anonymous pen pals. Jimmy Stewart is great as the male lead, and Margaret Sullavan is beautiful as the shopgirl. This is based on a Hungarian play, and is set in “Budapest,” which looks like the most beautiful city on Earth.

Steve D. Stones’  list of favorite Christmas/Holiday themed films
1). Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964). This favorite pick is predictable, but how can anyone resist a Christmas movie with dopey characters named Drop-O, Keemar, Voldar, Girmar and Bomar? The acting, dialogue, make-up, sets and costumes are amateur, at best, but the film has a lot of heart. John Call in the role of Santa Claus is irresistible, and may be the only convincing character in the entire film. Watch for the cheap spaceships designed from toilet paper rolls and toilet plungers are used as ray guns.  No toilet humor is involved. The green Martian make-up is lightly applied to many of the actors, likely for lack of budget. Don’t miss it! See Doug Gibson and I review this film as a video-cast on this web-site.

2). Die-Hard (1988). Yes, believe it or not, this box office action yarn can be considered a “Christmas movie.” Not since Sylvester Stallone played John Rambo in “First Blood” (1982) has Bruce Willis’ John McClane action hero had such great appeal to mass audiences.  His famous “Yippy-Ki-Yah-Mother-Fu*#er” line has become a staple of popular cinema culture. McClane takes on a group of European terrorists on Christmas Eve who have seized a high rise building in Los Angeles.  The result is a dynamite, edge of your seat action film that never lets up, and allows the audience to cheer for the killing of every bad guy McClane chalks up on his arm with a marker. Willis is perfect in this role, and went on to make three more in the series. This is a film where you’ll find yourself cheering for police and law enforcement.

3). Scrooge (1935). Although there have been many screen adaptations with larger budgets of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” classic, this one is a particular favorite of mine because it was the first VHS video I ever bought with my allowance money when I was 13. The dated, worn out look of the film helps add to its nostalgic quality.  Ebenezer Scrooge is played by Sir Seymour Hicks, who also co-wrote the script. Hicks is perfectly cast. The film is as poverty looking as its subject matter, but is worthy of a viewing just to see what one of the first screen adaptations of this Dickens classic looks like. Most public domain prints run 58 minutes, but an extended version runs over 80 minutes. Even the 58 minute versions list the film length on the box cover as 83 minutes. Don’t be fooled by this.

4). Black Christmas (1974). It has often been said that John Carpenter’s 1978 film – “Halloween” ushered in the so-called “slasher” horror films of the 1980s. Halloween owes a great deal to this holiday horror feature. Beautiful Olivia Hussey plays a college girl with boyfriend problems living in a sorority house, who is terrorized on Christmas Eve by threatening phone calls. The phone caller-killer is never shown on screen, adding to the suspense. He hides in the attic of the sorority house, which makes perfect since, considering how cold it is outside on Christmas Eve. The film was also marketed as Silent Night, Evil Night and Stranger In The House.

5). Santa Claus (1959). Not to be confused with the 1994 Tim Allen movie, or the 1985 Dudley Moore film of the same title, this bizarre 1959 Mexican import is notorious for VHS prints that cut out scenes involving the devil. Santa Claus also shows scenes of children from different countries
singing Christmas carols in their native languages at Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. The film has a moral tale to warn children not to steal the toys they want just because their parents may not have the money to buy them for Christmas.  It’s not known why public domain prints cut out all the scenes of the devil, but those scenes depict the devil as playful and ridiculous and are an important part of the film. Perhaps the scenes were cut so as not to scare children?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians -- The video review

 "Hurray for Santy Claus!" was the cheery theme song for the ultra-bizarre 1960s kiddie-matinee Christmas cult classic "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians." The hyper-low budget, so-bad-it's-good blend of sci-fi and holiday cheer hung around theaters for more than a decade. In the past couple of generations, it was named one of the 50 Worst Films by the Medved brothers, was spoofed by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and is still ubiquitous as a DVD offering in dollar stores. In the video podcast above, Steve D. Stones and I, along with camera help from Jennifer Thorsted, dissect this wonderful film. And, by, we're in the screening room of the beautiful Art House Cinema 502 theater, located at 158  Historic 25th Street in Ogden, Utah.
-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Tom Weaver talks Poverty Row Horrors with Plan9Crunch

Interview by Doug Gibson

At Plan9Crunch, we are pleased, and indeed honored, to present an interview with Tom Weaver, who over the course of a couple generations has written scores of books and articles detailing in-depth research into many areas of cult films. Of his books, Weaver has done groundbreaking research on many topics, including films of John Carradine, the Universal horror films of 1931 to the late 40s, and poverty-row horrors of the 1940s.

It's that final subject, Poverty Row Horrors, that Weaver has been kind enough to answer several questions we had regarding his wonderful book, "Poverty Row Horrors" (McFarland), that he wrote with research assistance from Michael and John Brunas. It's a fascinating look at that magical era (1940 to a bit past World War II) in which Monogram, PRC and Republic made low-budget films of the Universal-type horror films. Ironically, around the time the war ended, the Universal horrors were starting to resemble the Monogram and PRC horrors.

-- RELATED: Our review of "Poverty Row Horrors," by Tom Weaver

Bu we digress, here is the interview with Mr. Weaver:

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: Monogram, PRC, Republic, how did they see these B movies in terms of stars, artistic quality, plots and perhaps most importantly, economics?

 Weaver: I started interviewing Hollywood old-timers and writing about old movies in the early to mid-1980s, by which time most of the people who made the Poverty Row horror movies were long gone, so I never got to ask them questions like that. I don’t know that anyone else ever did either. I assume – and assuming is all I’m doing – that they saw that there was a market for these movies, based on the success that Universal was having with their “franchise monsters,” and tried to cut into the pie. “Artistic quality,” “plots,” all those considerations … I’d also bet that only a few of them, like Edgar G. Ulmer and Frank Wisbar, gave those things much thought. The “average” Monogram writer or director probably didn’t much care if his next assignment was a comedy or a horror movie or a Western, as long as the checks cleared. I hope that doesn’t sound cynical but I’ve talked to lots of TV writers and they were in it for the bread, and almost none of them had the episodes they had written in their home video collections – if they even HAD home video collections! In the 1940s, Sam Katzman himself called his horror movies “moron pictures” and said he couldn’t understand why people wanted to see them!

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: Of the horror genre stars who played in these films (I'll omit Karloff) who was the most successful artistically, and economically for the producers?

Weaver: Well, Bela Lugosi was the most successful from a standpoint of getting people to watch the movies – he made movies for Monogram on and off for about ten years, so obviously they were popular. And then they were popular on TV and now they’re popular on home video, and if really good-quality prints of his Monograms turned up in 2015, I’m sure a lot of fans would buy them even though they’ve probably bought all of Lugosi’s Monogram movies ten times by now, in various formats. Were any of them successful “artistically”? Well, you’d have to define “artistically” for me before I could answer that. “Artistically,” Carradine and Lugosi and Zucco would probably rather be working in any other movie then being made in Hollywood, then in something like RETURN OF THE APE MAN. These WERE good actors who’d been on the stage and been in fine movies, and they probably considered it a little embarrassing to work for the smallest Hollywood studios in movies that probably even kids laughed at. I’m sure they were happy for the work, happy to be making a living … and they’d have probably been happy if their next movie wasn’t going to have a Flying Serpent or a guy in a gorilla suit starring in it.

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: You mention in the book that Monogram budgeted these films to have a profit of less than $2,000. What were the budgets and cast salaries for these films generally. Name star? Non-name stars? Supporting people, such as Frank Moran, Minerva Urecal, etc.

Weaver: No one would love to know the answers to those questions more than I would. But if there’s paperwork for these movies anywhere, I don’t know where. I was able to find out that John Carradine made $3,000 a week on VOODOO MAN, which probably TOOK a week. That’s not bad – heck, if somebody offered me a $3000-a-week job now, 2015, I’d crawl over broken glass to get it, so imagine what that was like in 1944. But I’m sure the no-name supporting players got Screen Actors Guild scale, whatever that was at the time. In the 1930s the Weiss family had to be the cheapest producers in Hollywood, and recently someone dug up a lot of their records. They paid some of their minor actors just a few dollars a day, in the depths of the Depression.

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: What non-name actors do you think distinguished themselves in these low-budget films? And among directors and crew, who were some of the better professionals?

Weaver: I’m no huge fan of either BLUEBEARD or STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP but I think it’s obvious that their directors, Edgar Ulmer and Frank Wisbar respectively, tried to give ‘em a lot more TLC than the average Poverty Row horror director. Also Joseph H. Lewis, who directed Lugosi’s INVISIBLE GHOST. Performance-wise I’ve got some favorites that nobody talks about: Henry Victor as a Lugosi-like villain in KING OF THE ZOMBIES, Ralph Morgan as the victim of acromegaly in THE MONSTER MAKER, maybe a couple more. And I also enjoy leading ladies who are a bit brighter and/or spunkier than the norm, which would be Joan Barclay in BLACK DRAGONS, Louise Currie in THE APE MAN, Jean Parker in BLUEBEARD. Although maybe that’s as much thanks to the writers as to the actresses. Another reason that not-much is known about these movies behind-the-scenes, beyond the fact that the moviemakers were pretty much all dead before anybody started asking ‘em questions, is … they were made so quickly that, decades later, the people involved barely remembered them. Every Poverty Row actor or actress I talked to … they were good for one or two anecdotes, MAYBE, and that was IT. And that’s understandable. When I’m 80, and somebody asks me about a job that took me three days when I was 30 and hadn’t thought about since, they ain’t gettin’ NUTHIN’ out of me, I promise you!

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: Why did the genre falter after World War II? Perhaps as importantly, why were they successful during World War 2?

Weaver: Universal made horror popular again with SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, which made a LOT of money for a horror flick, and then THE CAT AND THE CANARY and THE GHOST BREAKERS with Bob Hope were hits that inspired more horror-comedies, and then the Val Lewton movies did unexpectedly well. They were good escapism for blue-collar types and kids and, if a studio didn’t put too much money into ‘em, they were assured a profit. It’s weird, it seems like all the studios were always following Universal’s lead when it came to the horrors: DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN were hits so the other studios started making them. In the mid-1930s they were getting LESS popular and civic groups were complaining about horror pictures here and abroad and Universal stopped making them, so everybody else stopped too; and in the mid-1940s Universal merged with International Pictures and decreed no more horrors, no more Westerns, no more B-pictures, and again all the other studios ALSO dropped the horrors.

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: Republic's films seem to have higher production values but lack traditional horror elements? Why was that?

Weaver: There were great, efficient crews working at Republic and they could make their cheapies look darn good, and did. I don’t think too many people at Monogram or PRC were sitting up nights trying to figure out how to make their movies look better. In fact, PRC movies HAD to look cheap – I’m told that to save money, they used the cheapest kind of film, film that newsreel cameramen used, so the movies probably looked old and dupey when they were brand new. As for the horror elements in Republic movies, it seems to me that their writers just weren’t cut out for monsters. They TRIED to come up with “something a little different” sometimes – a vampire in Africa who walks in sunlight and gets into fights; a Catman, a vampire-like joker they called a zombie, etc. They’d establish these offbeat horror characters and then didn’t know what to DO with them, so they have ‘em get into fights and chases, as if they were still writing a serial or a Western. Weird!

PLAN 9 CRUNCH: You're harsh at times in your assessments but fair. Do you think these films are overrated due to honor bestowed to stars and genre. What's the best Poverty Row offering in your opinion, from artistic and entertainment values?

Weaver: My favorite is probably THE DEVIL BAT because I like the murder-a-reel plot, I like the monster even though it’s the next thing to a kite I guess, and Bela actually seems like he’s having a good time playing the villain. I know that’s not the answer you’re “supposed” to give, I know BLUEBEARD and STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP have the best reps – and there ARE good things about them. But they’re so somber, no fun. And so cheap-looking. Both are PRCs and both look like they’re from 1919 because of the film stock, because they’re so dark, because they’re so drab. They make a Republic movie like LADY AND THE MONSTER look like an MGM super-production!

And this last question is from my co-blogger at Plan9Crunch, Steve D. Stones.

PLAN 9 CRUNCHMr. Weaver, you often are very critical of the films and directors you write about. Even though some of your criticism is warranted, do you still find some entertainment value in many of the bottom of the barrel films you write about? Since art and entertainment is very subjective, would you ever admit that there is something hip and unique about finding "bad movies" entertaining and worth one's time to view them?

Weaver: I find things to like in just about all of these movies, or (obviously!) I wouldn’t want to write about them. Who sits down and says to himself, “I hate B-Westerns” or “I never like musical comedies” and then their next thought is, “I should watch a ton of them and spend a year writing a book about them!” But when I actually sit down and have to critique these things, sometimes scene by scene, it CAN come out sounding pretty negative. Yes I kinda like THE APE MAN because Bela’s first scene is kinda funny and the scene of him running around town with the ape is darn funny and the ending, in its penny-ante way, is halfway exciting. Fine, there’s four minutes that I really like. But you’ve also got to write about the movie’s OTHER 60 minutes which I don’t think ANYbody much likes! So, yes, sometimes I’m sure my enthusiasm gets washed away by the tidal wave of complaints.

I love finding good things in a “bad” movie, or finding an unheard-of movie with a lot to recommend it, and sharing my opinions with other fans so that maybe they’ll give the movie another look. When people who buy my books contact me, there are two things they can say that I especially like hearing. Number one, that I wrote about a movie in such a way that it got them to rewatch it. That’s kinda what it’s all about, if you ask me. I love it when I’m reading a book and the discussion turns to a movie that I’ve seen, but not in a long time, and the writer writes about its best scenes and best performances and enthuses about it in such a way that after a while I have the attitude of “Forget about reading this book, I’m gonna go watch those movies.”

The other thing I love hearing is that people read my books in the bathroom. Maybe every writer won’t admit this, probably doesn’t LIKE admitting this, but – that IS the highest compliment you can get!

We'e grateful for Tom Weaver for taking the time to share his cult films expertise with our readers.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

'Joi Lansing - A Body To Die For' - A Love Story

By Steve D. Stones

I first became obsessed with Joi Lansing when I saw her kissing actor Arthur Franz in The Atomic Submarine (1959). Next, I saw Lansing in an opening sequence in Queen of Outer Space (1958) kissing actor Patrick Waltz. Ms. Lansing had the act of kissing down to an art.

Lansing's good looks and charming smile were not her only valuable assets. Her singing talents also made her stand out as an actress. She had a successful singing act in New York and Las Vegas. Lansing sang with country star Ferlin Husky in the cult classic - Hillbillies In A Haunted House (1967).

"Joi Lansing - A Body To Die For, A Love Story," (BearManor Media)  follows the last four years of her life before dying of breast cancer in August 1972 at age 43. The book is told from the perspective of Lansing's friend and lover - Rachel Lansing, aka Ivory Hunter, aka author Alexis Hunter. Lansing and Hunter met while filming the 1969 schlock movie - Bigfoot. Hunter wore an ape costume in the film.

Raised in Kansas, Hunter grew up watching lots of TV and immediately became infatuated with Lansing after seeing her on The Bob Cummings Show in the early 1960s. Her family relocated to Charter Oak, California, just thirty miles from Hollywood.  This brought her closer to her dream of starring in movies.

Hunter states in the opening prologue of the book that she had three specific reasons for writing the book. First, to warn readers of the dangers of silicone injections, which was part of the pain Lansing suffered during the last years of her life. Hunter also had a desire to express how vulnerable and fragile Lansing's self image was as a result of the pressures to remain young and beautiful in Hollywood.

Finally, Hunter had a desire to express just how strong love can endure between two human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation. Lansing may have been married to a man and thought to be "straight," but her connection with Hunter made the two soul mates in their short time together. The reader really gets a strong sense of just how much the two women loved and respected each other.

Hunter spends lots of time describing an almost day by day account the meals she, Lansing and Lansing's husband Stan ate in restaurants, as well as the places they traveled in the four years they were together. Hunter was fortunate enough to meet a number of Hollywood celebrities because of her relationship with Lansing, including Elvis, James Brown and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra once dated Lansing.

This touching story of Lansing and Hunter's life and their final days together brings tears to the reader's eyes. Hunter was by Lansing's side until the very end, sleeping next to her in a hospital bed every night.

As the book came to a close, I found myself being curious about Hunter's life today. She mentions she is an artist  who creates paintings and jewelry. Did she ever find new love? Also, what happened to Lansing's husband Stan? Is Hunter still a part of Lansing's family today? Perhaps these are not important questions for the reader to know the answers? What is important is that the two women shared a loving bond together in a short period of time.

For a complete resume of Lansing's career, refer to her page on the Internet Movie Database. She has a long and impressive list of television shows and movies she starred in during her twenty-eight year career. Happy reading.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Three very kitschy Christmas movies

(This essay originally ran in the Dec. 20, 2007 Standard-Examiner)

By Doug Gibson

Every December (or after Thanksgiving!)  the best Christmas films pop up on TV: "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," "Going My Way," "The Shop Around the Corner," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" — I refer to the Boris Karloff-narrated cartoon — "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" and, of course, that other Jimmy Stewart classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

We all have our favorite Christmas cinema moments. George Bailey's joyous run through Bedford Falls, Ebenezer Scrooge dancing for joy on Christmas morning, Macy's Kris Kringle speaking Dutch to a World War II orphan girl, and my favorite, crusty but lovable Father Fitzgibbon's surprise reunion with his mother after decades apart.

There are great holiday films. Much has been written about them. But today let's spill some ink about the other Christmas films, the kitschy ones. They're all over the dial. Just turn on the Hallmark Channel!

Most aren't worth five minutes of our time, but some still spread holiday magic. We've all heard of "A Christmas Carol" or "Scrooge," but how many recall the Fonz — Henry Winkler — starring in "An American Christmas Carol"? There are two well-received versions of "Miracle on 34th Street," but do you recall the kitschy 1973 TV version in which the lawyer was played by actor-turned-newsman David Hartman?

Even the biggy, "It's a Wonderful Life," has a kitschy cousin. Remember "It Happened One Christmas," the gender-switching knockoff starring Marlo Thomas?

Indeed, the competition is fierce for those kitschiest Christmas movies that still entertain us. But here are three finalists, all made on the cheap, yet still being sold and garnering holiday TV showings.

So, without further adieu, here is the best kitschiest Christmas film:

"Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" — This 1964 film was shot in an abandoned airport hangar in Long Island, N.Y., using many minor cast members from a NYC stage production of "Oliver Twist." It has a catchy theme song, "Hurray for Santy (sic) Claus," that you'll hum afterward. The plot involves Martians coming to earth, kidnapping Santa and whisking him away to cheer up the Martian kiddies. Two earth children are kidnapped along with Santa. Santa and the earth kids fight off a Martian baddie, prep a goofy Martian to become that planet's Santa, and launch off to earth in the spaceship. We never know if they made it home — perhaps the budget didn't allow that. The acting has to be seen to be believed, but the film has a goofy charm. It was a big hit on the now-gone "weekend matinee" circuit and played theaters for years. Pia Zadora, who was briefly a sexy starlet in the 1980s, plays one of the Martian children. John Call, as Santa, does a mean "ho, ho, ho." (Update, in 2011 holiday season this film played at the North Ogden Walker Cinemas for $2 plus a donated can of food!)

And now, the second-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa Claus" — Don't confuse this 1959 Mexican film with Dudley Moore's "Santa Claus: The Movie" or Tim Allen's "The Santa Clause" films. This import is weird and a little creepy, but it sticks with you. Old Kris Kringle is a sort of recluse who talks to himself and lives in a castle in outer space. He has no elves. His helpers are children from around the world who can't sing very well, though they belt out a lot of songs. Santa's reindeer are, I think, plastic and he uses a key to start them. Santa also works out on an exercise belt to slim down for the chimneys. For some reason Santa hangs out with Merlin the Magician. Enter "Pitch," a devil. His goal is to stop Santa from delivering presents. Pitch is a wimpy fellow in red tights and wears what looks like a short middy skirt. Santa and Merlin foil Pitch's nefarious plans. The film also focuses on two children, a poor girl and a rich, neglected boy, who resist Pitch's temptations. There are magic flowers and even special drinks. Santa glides safely to a chimney using a parasol. If this film sounds to readers like the after-effects of taking two Percocet, you got the gist of it.

Finally, the third-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa and the Three Bears" — If you lived in Southern California long ago, this 1970 blend of live action and cartoon was a Thanksgiving afternoon staple on KTLA Channel 5. The animation is mediocre, but the story has a simple charm. A forest ranger teaches two excitable bear cubs about Christmas while their grouchy mother bear wants them to hibernate for the winter. The ranger agrees to play Santa for the cubs on Christmas Eve, but a storm keeps "Santa" away ... or does it? The best part of the film is the live-action beginning and ending, where the ranger sits by the Christmas tree with his grandaughter, a sleepy cat and many toys. The ranger is voiced and played by Hal Smith, best known as Otis the town drunk on "The Andy Griffith Show." Grumpy Mama Bear was voiced by Jean Vander Pyl (Wilma on "The Flintstones"). The uncredited director is Barry Mahon, who made soft-core sex films in the 1960s with such titles as "Nudes Inc." and "The Sex Killer."

A footnote: These films can occasionally be found on TV. Indeed, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" and "Santa Claus" are usually broadcast a Friday in December on KULC Channel 9 in Utah at 9 p.m. Antenna TV plays "... Martians" during the Christmas season. Both Santa Claus films mentioned here have also been spoofed by the snarky robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A veritable scrapbook of all things Ed Wood and 'Bride of the Monster'

Review by Doug Gibson

I thought I knew all there was to know of “Bride of the Monster,” Ed Wood’s deliriously entertaining thriller that places Bela Lugosi in his last starring role, the last time he carried a film, that the plot and film’s success relied on his performance. I’d read several books with information on “Bride of the Monster” and perhaps three times as many articles. 

I was wrong, though. “Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster,” part of the Scripts From the Crypt collections edited by Tom Weaver, published by BearManor Media this year, is a literal — in fact intentional — scrapbook devoted to all things related to the iconic “Bride of the Monster,” which is generally the third-most popular Ed Wood film, after “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and “Glen Or Glenda.”

The film’s synopsis, as well as the script (an actual copy) is included in the book. The film involves an exiled mad scientist, Dr. Eric Vornoff, trying to make atomic supermen in his home, by a swamp and a lake, near a city in Florida. A woman reporter, (Loretta King) her boyfriend detective (Tony McCoy), and other police try to put a stop to it. There’s also a government agent, Professor Strowski, (George Becwar) presumably from a communist country, trying to kidnap Vornoff. The mad scientist is helped by a very large mute, Lobo, whom he found wandering in Tibet's wilderness. Lugosi plays Vornoff and Tor Johnson plays Lobo.

Film scholar Gary D. Rhodes presents a very interesting essay on the film’s history. Here are some things that I learned. “Bride of the Monster” was once a part of a package of films that Wood and film producer Richard Gordon hoped to sell to Allied Artists. Besides Lugosi, another star of a film was to be Boris Karloff. Eventually, these hopes were reduced to one film, “Bride of the Atom,” that would have starred Karloff, Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. That would have been an excellent teaming of three legends, but in the early 1950s, not many were impressed with the idea.

In the Allied Artists scenario, Karloff would have played Vornoff, Lugosi Strowski, and Chaney Jr. Lobo. Eventually, Allied Artists nixed the whole idea and left Wood scrambling to seek funding as well as he could, eventually getting the lion’s share of the funds from star McCoy’s father. 

Another tidbit of information I learned is that “Bride of the Monster” appears to have been ... drum roll ... a box office success. Of course, Ed Wood never saw a cent of the profits, having signed it away. But the film, with capable distribution and successful people in the industry behind it, including Samuel Arkoff, was handled effectively. It was in distribution for years, and about a year as a first-run feature. In one article, Bride’s share of receipts for a week in Los Angeles are tagged at $8,000-plus. The history of the film’s distribution is covered in detail, and it shows a film that was always in theaters in the mid 1950s, in double features, triple features and as part of live spook shows. The film was even paired with the Raymond Burr version of “Godzilla.” This information, a treat for fans, was gathered by Dr. Robert J. Kiss.

I recall reading, probably in “Nightmare of Ecstasy,” Rudolph Grey’s oral history of Wood, someone mentioning that if any Wood film made money, it was “Bride.” The information in this scrapbook provides strong evidence that is accurate.

The scrapbook also includes dozens of pages with small, paragraph-packaged facts on the film, compiled by Weaver, who, along with Rhodes, has a long list of previous literary accomplishments covering genre films. Weaver does offer an interesting take on who might have written most of “Bride of the Monster.” Some say Wood; others say Alex Gordon. Weaver favors Gordon, arguing that Bride’s “companion films,” “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and “Night of the Ghouls,” have certain Wood trademarks (lectures about violent youth, overwrought narration) that are absent from the tighter, more disciplined “Bride” script. Weaver also reminds that if you pay attention, you can see an unbilled Conrad Brooks behind a window early in the film.

It’s fun to read the script, because frankly, it presents a more exciting film that ended up on the screen. Obviously, budget limitations and a very limp octopus prop hampered what’s on the screen. But it is sad that the film does not have the promised battle royal between a atomic giant Vornoff and the monster octopus as depicted in the script. In the film, Lugosi’s double submits weakly to the octopus. Again, it's likely due to costs and a poor monster prop.

Besides what I have mentioned, this scrapbook contains many photos, an excellent essay on the career of character actor Ben Frommer (the drunk in “Bride of the Monster) , an essay on the music score (Bride had an original score!), as well as very interesting interviews with ”Bride“ star Loretta King, Wood’s last wife, Hope Lininger Lugosi, and a 1970s interview of Wood by Fred Olen Ray. I have seen all of these before in the now-defunct Cult Movies magazine, but it’s fun to have them in the scrapbook.

Also gathered are the script from Lugosi’s Las Vegas act in the 1950s and his testimony before Congress, shortly before his death, on his long struggle with drug abuse. (A page of that testimony is missing from the book, though). Also, ”Bride’s“ very small press booklet is included. There are copied recollections of Wood and Lugosi from the Gordon brothers and an interview with Richard Sheffield (also missing a page), the last person to see Lugosi alive. There's even a playbill from an "Arsenic and Old Lace" touring company with Lugosi as Jonathan Brewster. And even more ... but get the book!

We who love the minutiae of our cult films obsessions salute this book. Like ”Nightmare of Ecstasy,“ it’s a collection we will pore over hundreds of times over the years, reading a little, or most of the volume if we have a long weekend. Re-read, re-read, re-read, we do what we can to feed our love of Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi, ”Bride of the Monster,“ and more. How fortunate we are to have books like this, that respond to our needs.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Who was Larry Semon? New bio details silent clown's life

Review by Doug Gibson

When ever the subject of Larry Semon turns, I unconsciously think of that also-forgotten movie, “The Comic,” that Dick Van Dyke starred in almost 50 years ago. It dealt with a silent comedian, who after years of hard work attained fame, let his ego intrude, fell hard and lived out his life forgotten. Except that Larry Semon didn’t spend decades forgotten. He died soon after his fall, still making films, still trying to seduce a bemused public — who no longer cared for his talents — into returning him his fame and fortune.

Semon literally worked himself to death, dying in 1928 after about two months of convalescence, a body worn down by over-work, stress and failure. He was still a “movie star,” with a beautiful wife, and lived well, although he could no longer afford it. Film historian Claudia Sassen, a cartoonist and member of the faculty at Technical University of Dortmund, Germany, has done a commendable job with “Larry Semon: Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen,” McFarland, 2015. (800-253-2187) That a biography of Semon would come from Germany is no surprise as his popularity has endured there.

Sassen’s biography shows a lot of research, a valuable addition to serious scholarship of silent cinema. It provides insight into Semon’s family, his early upbringing in a traveling show business family (his father was a magician), Semon’s success as a newspaperman cartoonist and writer (he wrote an expose, learned from his dad, of how magicians did their levitating tricks, etc.), and his tension-filled relationships with studios, such as Vitagraph. He attained stardom in one- and two-reel shorts working with future stars such as Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and sturdy slapstick veterans like Hughie Mack, Patsy DeForest, and Frank Alexander.

Semon was a perfectionist; his two-reelers usually cost far more in money and time than others of that era. This indirectly led to his career downfall as legal battles with Vitagraph hampered the box office potential of his feature films. Sassen describes an entertainer who was single-minded, aloof to most of the cast and crew, and downright cold to his first wife and only child, whom he essentially abandoned with an increasingly modest stipend. 

As Sassen notes, he thrived in the early era of slapstick, with daredevil stunts, fast-paced action and little drama or romance. He was good at it. Watch his early silents on YouTube or other sources; some of the stunts are amazing. But this was a subgenre that didn’t require a star with pathos. And to be very frank, Larry Semon cannot generate pathos; the audience does not feel sorry for this funny-faced jokester. But he is funny. “The Saw Mill” from 1922, shows Semon, along with Oliver Hardy, at his best in crazy comedy.

A chief strength of the biography is its insight into the film world that Semon helped shape, how films were made, the value placed on actors and crew. And the drama of Semon’s life can entertain. particularly his ill-fated affair with co-star Lucille Carlisle, and his battles with studio executives.

Like many other two-reel comedians, Semon’s fortunes turned south when he moved in features. If anyone has seen a Larry Semon feature, it tends to be the 1925 “Wizard of Oz,” which is an extra on “The Wizard of Oz,” 1939, disc, pops up on Turner Classic Movies and online sources, including Amazon Prime. The film is, and I’m not exaggerating, jaw-droppingly bad. It doesn’t even have the ability to improve on repeat viewings. Every so often, I watch the film again, hoping to like it even a little, to no avail. It still stinks.

"Wizard of Oz” is an ego-trip film. One from a director/star so self-absorbed that he thought he could tamper with a classic, turn it into a tedious melodrama with Dorothy as a supporting player, a passive participant to the silly pratfalls of Semon’s “Scarecrow,” Hardy’s “Tin Man,” and an of-the-times racist caricature (“G. Howe Black”) as the cowardly lion. Characters switch roles so often ones gets a headache trying to decipher an indecipherable plot. “Uncle Henry” is a morbidly obese domestic abuser (Alexander)!

This review, provided in Sasser’s biography, appropriately summarizes the film: “Mr. Semon, How Could You? Listen folks, if you want to see something that will make you sick, see The Wizard of Oz played by our eminent comedian, Larry Semon. ... But I surely wasn’t prepared for what I got — a regular Semon comedy under the disguise of The Wizard of Oz. ... When you are transferring a well-known and well-loved story to the screen, is it necessary needlessly to butcher the plot?” ... Larry Semon, you owe an apology to the people who have read the Oz books, and do humble beg the pardon of Frank Baum’s memory for the wrong you have done this story.“

As Sassen notes, ”Wizard of Oz“ was eagerly awaited by many, and its first week of release, in Los Angeles, broke records. However, the film more or less bombed elsewhere.

Semon was sage enough financially to avoid much responsibility for the ’Wizard” fiasco. But, trying to turn failure into success, he made himself personally financially responsible for other films, including the now-forgotten ’Spuds.“ This broke Semon’s finances and the situation only worsened. As the biography notes, near the end of his life he couldn’t afford routine domestic costs, and had to rely financially on his last wife, actress Dorothy Dwan, who besides playing Dorothy in ”Wizard“ was having success in silent cowboy films.

Semon tried hard to change his career fortunes. He directed films, was frequently in vaudeville, massaged his character to be more subtle, like fellow comedian Harry Langdon, and even played a straight drama role in a crime drama, ”Underworld,“ which I’d love to see (Sassen writes highly of it). But he couldn’t shake the public perception that he represented a category of silent comedy, high-action slapstick, that was already antiquated by the latter 1920s. It would be resurrected in sound comedy shorts several years later, but Semon was dead.

It was officially pneumonia and tuberculosis that ended Semon’s life at 39 on Oct. 8, 1928. From reading Sassen’s biography, though, it seems stress and hard work, and perhaps bad health habits, had worn him out. His death, as Hollywood deaths sometimes do, have spawned myths that he really didn’t die, that he might have done a runner to avoid all those stresses. But that’s nonsense. Semon had a loyal wife, Dwan, who loved him and was working hard to maintain their household. And Semon was a driven, committed entertainer, not one to give up.

It would have been interesting to see if sound would have resurrected Semon nearer the top. We’ll never know; his wife, tired of show business, retired soon after his death. Sasson’s book is unlikely to bring Semon greater acclaim, but it is a valuable resource for fans of the genre.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The other, much-maligned Larry Semon 'Wizard of Oz'

To Plan9Crunch readers: I am reading a very interesting biography of mostly forgotten silent comic Larry Semon and will review it in a few to several days. In the meantime, here's a re-run of a review of Semon's most notorious film, an ill-advised adaptation of L. Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz."

By Doug Gibson

Ever heard of Larry Semon? That's all right. He's not nearly as popular as his peers. He was a silent movie comic. His physical comedy and sad sack face made him very popular in one- and two-reelers, but his character had a tough time creating pathos with viewers. He needed to be seen in small doses.

Semon had ambition, though, and in the mid 1920s he worked with the son of the late L. Frank Baum, to bring Baum's Wizard of Oz series to the big screen. The 1925 film (versions range from 72 to 81 minutes) is a curio. A huge flop at the box office -- it more or less ruined Semon's career -- it is nevertheless fascinating. It's a so-bad-it's-interesting ego trip from a star who desperately needed a director other than himself. Still, there are moments -- particularly at the beginning of the film -- that feature talented slapstick comedy. Yet, in this film are Semon, of course, big fat slapstick veteran Frank Alexander, a very young Oliver Hardy and Semon's very pretty wife, Dorothy Dwan.

Here's the film in a few paragraphs: We start in Oz, where Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn) and the citizens are upset with corrupt leaders, including Prime Minister Kruel. The bad leaders consult the Wizard, a con man, who suggests they bring the lost Princess Dorothy back. We cut now to Kansas, where the womanly Dorothy (Dwan) lives with Aunt Em, (Mary Carr) a limp dishrag of a woman, and Uncle Henry (Alexander) a big, fat domestic abuser. He literally punches anyone he meets.

Competing for Dorothy's love are farmhands Semon and Hardy. There is a black farmhand named Snowball. Be advised the film is very racist and the character, played by actor Spencer Bell, is billed as "G. Howe Black." (Later in the film, Semon's character lets loose with a tasteless racist jab at Bell's character) Ths racism was unfortunately the norm for those times.

The film meanders on coherently while the characters are in Kansas. It's cliche-ridden, but there are talented, physical slapstick gags with Semon, Hardy and Alexander. There's a funny bit with bees, and another with a swing. But once the main characters are blown to Oz in a shack it loses all sense. The first nonsensical twist is having Aunt Em -- who is in the wind-guided shack -- disappear when they arrive. It gets worse: Semon turns into the Scarecrow, Hardy the Tin Man and Bell the cowardly lion, but they really aren't these characters. They are disguises. Alexander briefly turns into a good guy, then reverts to being a bad guy. Incomprehensibly, Hardy's Tin Man turns bad too.

Finally, Dwan's Dorothy more or less disappears from the film, becomes betrothed to Prince Kynd, and wants to see Semon's Scarecrow done away with, too! In fact, the film degenerates into a series of bad slapstick gags designed to showcase Semon trying to outwit the Oz folk who want to capture him. The Wizard (Charles Murray) is still hanging around. By then it's really no longer Baum's Wizard of Oz. It's just an overlong, badly paced Semon slapstick show.

As I mentioned, the film bombed. Semon's career was harmed. He puttered around in films for a few more years, then died young. Many believe stress over his bankruptcy contributed to his death. For a long time this film was considered obscure and very hard to find. Lately, though it has popped up on DVD, either as an extra to the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, or as the feature attraction in a DVD of silent versions of Baum's Oz tales (there are several as far back as 1910). It also gets plays on Turner Classic Movies, which continues to ignore Harry Langdon's better features, such as "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" and "The Strong Man," etc. You can see it on YouTube sans music.

I will say one good thing about the silent Wizard of Oz. Semon's Scarecrow very much resembles in looks and mannerisms of Ray Bolger's much-lauded Scarecrow in the later classic. It seems clear that Bolger did borrow from Semon's portrayal and also managed to bring the empathy to the character that Semon could not achieve. Cult movies fans should note that many of Semon's silent shorts can be purchased today. Also, his shorter two-reel films, many are on YouTube.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Behind the scenes at Overlords of Magick

By Sherman Hirsh

Today we are privileged to read another fascinating, fact-filled essay by popular guest blogger Sherman Hirsh, screenwriter and director. Sherman has provided fascinating blog posts on the independent productions of "Surgikill," "Lords of Magick," "Scream, Zombie Scream," and "Love Slaves of the She-Mummy."(Part 1 and Part 2) Today, he writes about the production of his next film, "Overlords of Magic," a sequel to "Lords of Magick."

“Somebody want to wake up the sound man?”

It was 2AM on August 1st.  We had been shooting since 6PM, and we were exhausted, and had three pages to go.  These were the last shots on the last day of production.  One petty torment after another delayed our wrapping OVERLORDS OF MAGICK once and for all.  The camera card filled up and the spare was missing in action.  The last few shots were recorded on my backup camera.  Takes were being ruined by extraneous loud flatulent noises from the fog machine.   Street noises ruined others. 

Finally, through the sheer determined professionalism of my incredible cast and my pig-headed refusal to schedule any more shooting days, we finished and the actors stole as many props as they could get away with and went home. (Why not?  They were only getting $10 an hour.  At least they waited until we were done.  On one picture I made, LOVE SLAVES OF THE SHE-MUMMY (1998),  an actor stole a prop he was due to use and I had to steal it back so we could do the scene.) At long last, we had finished the principal photography.  

Day One was May 18th.  We shot 5 nights a week, for roughly 6 hours each, and except for two weeks when we were down because a couple actors had previous commitments.   We worked straight through until we got everything I scripted.  That’s right, we shot the whole script.  We dropped nothing.  Not a single page hit the floor.  11 actual shooting weeks, 55 days, 300 and something hours on hot cramped sets, and it was finally over.  So, how and why were we doing this?

30 years ago, I wrote a little comedy fantasy meant for Cable, called “The Thousand Year Quest”.  The producer changed the title to LORDS OF MAGICK, and shot it.  What came out was a quirky odd-ball movie that somehow achieved Cult status.   Although it was never sold to the Public, only rented on perishable VHS, you can view the bootleg LORDS OF MAGICK on YouTube.  Even though there is no DVD, somehow, somebody was sufficiently impressed/confused/amused/annoyed  to tout the film to the cult movie crowd. 

In 2011, CINEFAMILY, a noted revival house in Hollywood scheduled a screening of LORDS OF MAGICK.  When I learned of this, I called the theater and inquired if anyone associated with the film would be there.  I was told that the producer had declined his invitation, and an editor backed out.  I told them I was the writer and to my surprise,( since nobody gives a rat’s rump who writes a movie), was told I could attend and do a Q & A after the screening.  I had just done the same thing a few weeks earlier for the world premier of SURGIKILL, the film I wrote that was Andy Milligan’s last project.  That screening attracted about 40 customers, and I had no reason to believe that LORDS OF MAGICK would do any better, especially since it was the lesser known of the two films and had an obscure director, not one with an already prominent cult reputation. 

Well, CINEFAMILY was packed!  FULL HOUSE!  LORDS OF MAGICK ran and was very well received.  They loved it!  I was astonished at how much they liked it, since it had received so many nasty reviews, mostly on YouTube.  Usually, with a “cult” film, people mock it, laughing at all the mistakes and stupid occurrences.  Not this time.  They laughed at all the right places.  I was complimented about it several times.  The Q&A was a dream.  I answered questions and told stories I had told a dozen times before and got tremendous happy feedback. 

During the Q&A, somebody asked me about the title.  I told them about my original title, THOUSAND YEAR QUEST and how I had written a line in a final battle scene where the villain boasts, “There cannot be two lords of magic!”  I recounted how the director latched onto that line and made it the release title, and how I had mitigated the slight by getting him to use the alternative spelling, with the “K”.

Then somebody asked me if there was going to be a sequel.  I replied with, “THERE CAN NOT BE TWO LORDS OF MAGICK!” and got a major laugh.  However, since I had recently finished SCREAM, ZOMBIE,. SCREAM, and was looking for my next project, I thought, “Why not?”   I don’t like doing sequels.  All the best material went into the prototype and the sequel turns out to be some bastard concoction with no soul and usually not even a true sequel,  i.e., “what came next,” just a perfunctory re-make. 

I wanted to break that.  I needed a powerful script.  It had to have a strong premise that still represented the genre.  I don’t have the genes for drama, so it would be a comedy.  What kind of comedy?  Not a campy sophomoric orgy of stupidity like SURGIKILL.  I don’t like Stupid.  I like Crazy.  For the plot, I would take LORDS OF MAGICK, and turn it inside out.   Instead of two brothers propelled out of the Dark Ages to battle Evil Incarnate in 1980’s Hollywood, my heroes would be two modern brothers sucked into, well, as our tagline states so eloquently: “In the last place on Earth where Magick rules, THEY broke all the rules.”

My heroes would be smart, brave, resourceful equals, not stupid, cowardly bumblers who escape destruction by sheer luck.  Smart, but crazy!  Rather than being forced to deal with forces they don’t understand, they would be experienced in the realm of preternatural and anomalous phenomena, or as they put it,” Weirdiosity.”

It all starts with the script.  I began a script that was a direct sequel to LORDS OF MAGICK.  My heroes, JACK & ARNOLD, (named for the great director of Universal monster movies who finished his career directing GILLIGAN’S ISLAND).  They were two guys who were convinced that LOM was REAL, a warning of ordeals to come!  They were afraid that the villain, Salatin, was preparing his revenge and they had to confront him and end his rampage.  Garbage.  When it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.  Let’s try something else.

OK, same guys, but this time they have acquired the Sword of Ulrick, the actual prop weapon Mark Gauthier, the actor who played Ulrick,  carried in LORDS OF MAGICK, and the only known prop to survive.  I have it and I intended to find a way to use it.  Anyway, these guys are in college and have apparently been misbehaving with the sword and are being counseled by the college faculty spoilsport to stop believing the sword has powers, etc.   Better garbage, but still…

Premise number three was an attempt to breathe life into the most overused, tired, clich├ęd, trite, hackneyed, worn-out devices in all of Fantasy, “And they woke up and it was all a dream…”  I changed the title to SWORD OF THE DREAMERS.  OK, so what if it is a dream?  What if the guys KNOW it’s a dream and act accordingly?  They go through all kinds of nastiness and come back fighting.  They get killed, wake up and go back to sleep and get right back in the fray.  The villain finds a way to kill them where they stay dead in the Dream World, and they have to deal with that.  They can’t, and another fabulous idea is discovered to sucketh mightily.

Up to now, I had been trying to come up with a sequel to LOM.  OK, forget the direct sequel concept.  The basic framework for LORDS OF MAGICK was that it was Episode One of The Merlinite Chronicles, with the idea of there being others in a series of Merlinite stories.  (Happens all the time in those fat fantasy paperbacks).  Instead of what happened after and because of LOM, what if I wrote a totally independent story that had nothing to do with LOM, other than the presence of a Merlinite Wizard?   What if Episode Two had little or no reference to the events and characters of Episode One?   New bad guy.  Different way of getting the heroes into the action, being that they are basically kidnapped and blackmailed into fighting the villain.  

They are drawn to a strange magical land which does not exist in another reality, nor is it in the past.  It’s in the real world, it’s happening now, but the land is concealed by magick and kept apart from the modern world.  Until our heroes mix things up.  The story is their odyssey through this “Oz Wannabe” as they try to eliminate an evil maniac who will steal the magick of this land and use it to conquer the rest of the world.  Following the same plot model as LOM, i.e., a bunch of minor magical incidents leading up to a big pay-off, things started to fall into place.  (Actually, LOM was plotted after Ghostbusters.) 

I finished the complete first draft on May 5, 2015.  It only took 3 years and 47 drafts.  I had to sacrifice some wonderful characters and some great scenes, but I had to whittle the thing down to a manageable state.  So, you will never see Uncle Ankh, the talking mummy, or  Mother Medea, 

Abbess of the Abyss, the cannibal seeress who trades her knowledge for human flesh,  or the evil Jim Hotep, vile henchman of the real heavy of this piece, The Pharaoh Cleopatrick IX!
It’s a fantasy, with our wizards, monsters, a genie, a magic lamp, an elephant, and more.  It’s a farce, with myriad references and allusions to classic comedy routines.  It’s a romance with the beautiful Guinevere of the Grave, who has been dead for 300 years, but makes a comeback.  And, let’s not forget the greatest menace of all, The Purple Parking Pixie!  Somewhere along the line, Jack & Arnold became Jack & Toby, and the title reverted to OVERLORDS OF MAGICK.  You will meet King Hoozon the 1st, and Cedric, the feral eater of rotting rabbit.  The Pharaoh’s high priestess, Nefertootsie, threatens our heroes and all of this is instigated by the Merlinite Wizard, Merlin Monroe.  

When I mentioned that the writing took 3 years, that time included other preparations.  I was buying props, costumes, set design elements, even whole sets.  I was augmenting my complement of equipment with new lights, lenses, special effects and post production software and anything else that caught my eye.  I developed a serious eBay addiction and if I saw an interesting item, I would write a gag or even a whole scene around it.  We may be a low budget movie, but we look good!
And now I sit here, facing hours of footage files, double that in digital sound files, special effects, music, sound effects, and all of the other technical “assets” that comprise a film.  Somehow I must force it all together in a way that makes sense, and isn’t boring.  Shooting is the best part.  The rest is about as interesting as doing laundry.

I miss my cast.  I was blessed for this project with a fantastically talented and professional company of actors who did exactly what I wanted them to do.   You will hear from them in the future.  Who are they?  Buy the movie and read the credits

I had something resembling a real professional crew on this project.  My co-producer, Devai Pearce, ran my front office, freeing me to make the movie, and making sure the company got paid..  Arihel Bermudez supplied a super-sharp digital sound track, while Shadow ran the camera.  And let’s not forget Lion, our Rastafarian Stagehand.  However, I have to give a huge acknowledgement to Karl McNulty, known in the industry as UltraKarl.  As the production designer, Karl created major sets, props, costumes, special effects, and gave us a great visual treat.  I would throw an idea at him and he’d throw a prop back at me.  Or a castle.  Or a Middle Ages magic car. 

I hope to have OVERLORDS OF MAGICK finished by the end of this year.  We missed the deadlines for most of the important fantasy film festivals.  There’s always next year.  Until then, I leave you with the catchphrase of OVERLORDS OF MAGICK, Everything Was Impossible Until Somebody Did It!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

'Halloween' 1978, still the best Halloween horror film

By Steve D. Stones

John Carpenter’s classic 1978 film – Halloween is the standard by which every schlocky slasher film that followed aspired to be but failed miserably. It manages to scare the pants right off you without showing one drop of blood. Author Stephen King once said that the best killers in horror are the ones who give us no explanation for their killing. Michael Meyers fits this description well. He is a killing machine who will stop at nothing to kill. The viewer is never given any specific reason for Meyers’ desire to kill, making him all the more effective and Halloween all the more scary.

Lori Strode, played by 19 year old Jamie Lee Curtis, is more interested in hitting the books after school than hitting on boys. Her friends tease her about studying too much and not chasing boys. Her friend Annie, played by Nancy Loomis, tries to set Lori up with a boy at school she has a crush on. Both girls are babysitting on Halloween night when a psychotic killer, Michael Meyers, escapes from an Illinois State mental institution and comes to their town. Meyers stabbed to death his teenage sister some fifteen years earlier in 1963. He returns to the scene of the crime in Haddonfield, Illinois on the night of Halloween 1978.

Carpenter successfully creates impending fear in the viewer by never fully showing Meyer’s face. He relies greatly on shots that show Meyer’s shoulder in the frame of a shot, or by showing his silhouette in dark, shadowy environments.  Other shots show Meyers stepping briefly into the shot, only to be quickly consumed by shadows in the background. This is effective and creepy film-making, worthy of techniques used in the silent German-Expressionist masterpiece – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

I respect the Rob Zombie 2007 remake-homage to Halloween, but it is not nearly the classic of Carpenter’s 1978 film. Zombie spends too much screen time giving us a back story of how Meyers evolved into a killer and his obsession with creating masks in his mental institution cell. Like many children in 1983 who saw Return of The Jedi, I was greatly disappointed to see the man behind Darth Vader’s mask at the end when Luke Skywalker reveals his identity. I feel the same with Michael Meyers. Meyers is much more evil and mysterious when the viewer is not aware of his past and what he looks like behind the mask. I really don’t care why he kills, or what motivates him to kill. The fear a viewer experiences in Halloween is better felt by not knowing his identity.

One ridiculous criticism that Halloween received when it premiered in 1978 is that Carpenter was trying to make a moral statement about pre-marital sex and teenagers, since some of the victims killed by Meyers are teenagers having sex on Halloween night. Lori Strode, the smart girl who avoids boys and refuses to engage in sex, is the person who survives Meyers’ attacks. Carpenter’s town of Haddonfield, Illinois is not a town like Andy of Mayberry. This critique is complete nonsense. Carpenter actually adds a great sense of realism to his film by showing teenagers being sexually active. Is it safe to say that many teenagers do get together on Halloween night and engage in sexual
activity? I think it is safe to say that they do, therefore Carpenter shows us a side of Middle America teens that is accurate.

Carpenter was smart not to get involved in any of the sequels to Halloween, at least in terms of directing them. Halloween II picks up where the first Halloween film ends, but it is a disappointing effort mostly because it takes place in a dimly lit hospital. Halloween III blacklists the Meyers character and instead concerns a plot to kill children with rigged Halloween masks.

This Halloween Season, enjoy a great classic by viewing John Carpenter’s 1978 classic – Halloween. You might get your pants scared off you, but you won’t be disappointed. Happy Viewing!!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Rob Zombie's take on 'Halloween'

By Steve D. Stones

John Carpenter’s classic film Halloween literally took the box office by storm in 1978. It was immediately hailed as “the new Psycho of the 1970s” and remained the highest grossing independent film for more than 20 years, despite a budget of only $320,000.

It ushered in the “slasher genre” of the 1980s, and remains a classic of the horror film. Its influence can still be seen in many horror films of today.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the film’s release. Rob Zombie’s 2007 reworking homage to Carpenter’s film is also a real treat for the horror film aficionado. Zombie concentrates on giving the audience the point of view of the Michael Meyers character, his childhood, and the transition he makes from a child’s clown mask to the iconic Michael Meyer’s mask that has become so familiar to moviegoers and horror fans.

This time we see a more human side to the Meyers character and less of the supernatural characteristic that defines Meyers in the Carpenter film. The Meyers family can be defined as the typical dysfunctional, middle-American family, with a divorced mother, Deborah Meyers, who works as a stripper, played by the director’s wife Sherrie Moon Zombie, and her deadbeat lazy boyfriend who constantly argues with Judith and avoids the children.

The Meyers home is in constant chaos, which drives Michael to trapping and killing animals in the home bathroom while wearing his clown mask. Zombie makes many of the same references that Carpenter makes in his film, such as a scene of Howard Hawks’ 1951 film The Thing playing on the television, and the music of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” Young Michael Meyer’s even wears a KISS T-shirt to school.

The one reference that got my attention immediately is a scene of a young couple having sex in the Meyer’s rundown house while they play the punk rock song “Halloween” by The Misfits, which is sung in Latin. Zombie has also kept the eerie Carpenter score from the original film intact. Zombie spends more time showing the audience the interaction that takes place between Dr. Samuel Loomis, played by Malcolm McDowell, and Michael Meyers as a child. Dr. Loomis records his thoughts into a tape recorder while videotaping young Meyers in his handmade masks.

Meyers spends his time at the sanitarium making paper mache masks. His obsession grows to a room full of masks covering every inch of wall space in his cell. Another major difference between the two films is that the Lori Strode character in the Carpenter film is a virginal, bookworm babysitter who avoids boys out of complete shyness. Lori Strode in the Zombie film is at times a very sexual, nasty teenager who isn’t afraid to use foul language and talk about boys. She appears to be more confident about herself, and enjoys participating in the normal behaviors of a teenage girl.

From a complete visual standpoint, I found this film to be very well made, with genuine scares that kept me on the edge of my seat. Zombie manages to make horror films that combine bizarre visuals and rapid montages that work well with his choice of sound and music. Like his music and live performances, you will walk away from Halloween feeling very entertained and genuinely frightened.

I highly recommend this film to any horror film buff and fan of Zombie’s music. Two thumbs way up on this one!!!!!